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This is the first in a series of four lessons on close-up and macro photography by Andrew S Gibson, author of Up Close: A Guide to Macro & Close Up Photography.
Macro and close-up photography can seem complex and intimidating when you don’t know much about the techniques or equipment used.
The good news is that close-up photography techniques are straightforward to learn, and it doesn’t have to be expensive either. All it takes is for someone to guide you through the accessories and methods that photographers use to get up close to their subject.
While macro lenses undoubtedly give you the best image quality (I’ll cover macro lenses in detail in a later lesson) not everybody wants to, or has the budget, to buy one. So first I’m going to explore some relatively inexpensive ways to try out close-up and macro photography.
Macro photography: This is when the subject is the same size, or smaller than, your camera’s sensor. This results in what is called 1:1 or life-sized reproduction. The best way to obtain this level of magnification is with a macro lens, although you may also be able to do it with extension tubes or a reversed lens (covered in upcoming articles).
Close-up photography: I define close-up photography as taking photos using an accessory that allows your lens to focus more closely to the subject than it otherwise would. It’s getting close to your subject, but not as close as you can with a macro lens.
For me, this is the area where the most exciting images are to be made. You can create exciting close-up images of flowers, portraits and detail. You are close enough to create dramatic images, but not so close that you run into problems created by lack of depth-of-field.
My favourite accessory for getting up close is a close-up lens (the Canon 500D close-up lens is pictured above). A close-up lens, while technically a lens, looks more like a filter and screws into the front of your lens the same way. For this reason they are also called close-up filters or supplementary filters.
Close-up lenses work by reducing the minimum focusing distance of your lens. You can focus more closely to your subject, which gives you greater magnification.
1. Single element close-up lens
You’ll see these for sale in camera stores and on Amazon or eBay, sometimes for rock bottom prices. They may come in sets, allowing you can combine the lenses for greater magnification.
Single element close-up lenses are built with one optical element. This keeps the price down and they are ideal if you’re on a budget. However the image quality isn’t great. They suffer from lack of edge sharpness and chromatic aberrations. These are more pronounced at wide apertures.
2. Double element close-up lenses
Double element (sometimes called dual-element or achromatic close-up lenses) close-up lenses contain two elements. The second element corrects the aberrations of the first, resulting in excellent image quality across the frame and minimal chromatic aberration.
The 500D close-up lens pictured earlier is a double element close-up lens.
The only downside of double element close-up lenses is the price and availability. While cheaper than buying a macro lens, they can be considerably more expensive than single element close-up lenses.
Canon is the only major camera manufacturer producing double element close-up lenses. The 250D (+4 diopter) and 500D (+2 diopter) are available, although probably not off the shelf in your local camera store. You will have to order them.
Just like filters, they can be used with any brand of camera, the important thing is to make sure you buy the right size to match the filter thread on your lens.
Nikon used to make close-up lenses, but they have been discontinued. You may still be able to buy them second-hand.
Raynox makes triple-element close-up lenses that come with a snap-on mount that you can use to attach them to lenses with filter threads from 52 to 67mm. I haven’t used one, but the reviews are good and they are surprisingly inexpensive considering the image quality you should get from them.
Using a close-up lens is easy. Just screw it into the front of your lens and your camera will take care of exposure and auto-focus (at higher magnifications it may be easier to switch the lens to manual focus).
For maximum magnification, use manual focus and set the lens to its minimum focusing distance. Move the camera closer to the subject until it’s in focus.
Close-up lenses work better with telephoto lenses than shorter focal lengths. The longer the focal length of your lens, the more magnification you will gain by attaching a close-up filter (Canon makes the 500D close-up lens in 72mm and 77mm sizes to match the filter threads of its telephoto lenses).
I like using my close-up lens for the following types of subject:
Portraits – if I want to get really close to my subject, I just put a close-up lens on my 85mm lens. This lets me get really close, yet, as I’m using a short telephoto, not so close that I make my sitter feel awkward.
Flowers – flowers look amazing in close-up. I’ve spent a lot of happy hours in Auckland’s Winter Gardens, and Kew Gardens in London, photographing the beautiful flowers displayed there.
Details – details are a great way of capturing the atmosphere of a place when you’re travelling. A close-up lens lets you get up close and concentrate on the little things that evoke the atmosphere of your location.
It’s not an area I’ve dabbled in much, but close-up lenses are also great for food photography.
In the next lesson I’ll take a look at extension tubes, how to use them and which ones to buy.
You can learn more about close-up and macro photography in my new ebook Up Close: A Guide to Macro & Close Up Photography, available now from Craft & Vision.